You Have to Talk to Your Girl About Physical and Sexual Abuse—Here's How
There are some conversations that no parent or child is eager to have. Talking about physical and sexual abuse with your girl can be uncomfortable for both of you, but a look at the numbers tells us it’s a conversation that can’t wait.
Approximately 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys experience sexual abuse. In 2017, Child Protective Services investigated more than 3.5 million cases of alleged abuse against children. April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month, and an important reminder to start this conversation today.
Some families might shy away from exposing their children to recent allegations against pop stars, film makers, and organizations, but experts say this is actually an important opportunity to discuss abuse with kids. “Young girls and boys are watching and listening to everything around them,” says Girl Scouts’ developmental psychologist Dr. Andrea Bastiani Archibald. “They may not be discussing such issues in front of you, but they’re almost definitely thinking about them, and they may even be discussing issues of violence and abuse in the lunchroom at school, or following conversations on social media. By addressing the topics of sexual violence and abuse head-on, parents and guardians can make sure their girls get the facts, understand that they can discuss these topics at home, and know how to be a good friend to peers who might be dealing with abuse.”
Still, the idea of this conversation can be daunting. Nobody wants to scare their child into thinking bad things will happen to them, but on the other hand, not discussing it leaves your girl more vulnerable.
Here are a few points you’ll want to make sure to cover:
1. Our bodies are our own—no one has the right to touch them without our permission
Start the conversation about consent early, and emphasize that even if someone seems “important” or “powerful,” that still doesn’t give them license to touch without permission or act in a sexual way toward your girl. Along these lines, when your girl is starting a new class, group, club, or team, ask about all of the people she interacts with and the relationships she’s forming—not just with other kids, but with adults too. Just as you teach your girl to “trust her gut,” you should as well. If something seems off, speak up and take action to keep your girl safe.
2. Make sure she knows it’s never, ever the child’s fault
No matter what a kid says, does, or wears—or where she goes—touching without consent, let alone abuse, is never warranted, “asked for,” or deserved. Children who have suffered deserve protection, support, and love. There’s no need for a child who’s experienced abuse to feel guilty or ashamed.
3. If she witnesses or experiences abuse, you are there for her
Many girls keep quiet about abuse they experience because they worry their parents will be angry at them or treat them differently. Additionally, some girls may be embarrassed or feel that they shouldn’t have “gotten themselves in that situation.” Tell your girl you love her and you will always do everything in your ability to keep her safe—no matter the circumstances.
4. Not all abuse looks the same
Some abuse is physically violent, some is verbal or psychological, and some is sexual in nature. Not all types of abuse will leave a bruise on her skin or leave her physically injured. Make sure your girl knows she can and should speak up even if she’s not sure if behavior “counts” as abuse. If someone’s behavior seems a little bit wrong, possibly inappropriate, or makes her feel icky in general, she should always come to you. She doesn’t have to figure things out on her own.
5. Some secrets shouldn’t be kept
Friendship is so important to girls, so earning and keeping the trust of her girlfriends is a major priority. That said, if a friend confides in your daughter and tells her about abuse she’s suffering, the responsible thing to do is to tell an adult immediately. Of course, your girl will worry about losing a friend by not keeping her secret, but good friends help to keep each other safe first and foremost—and even if her friend swears she’s “OK,” she has experienced real trauma and needs help. This is one of those times when doing the difficult and uncomfortable thing is absolutely necessary. On another note, many predators ask children to keep the abuse that’s happened a secret, or to specifically not tell their parents or guardians. Tell your girl that it’s a red flag for any adult to ask a child to keep information from their parents.
6. Sometimes people we know, respect, or even love can do bad things
Child abusers, particularly sexual predators, often prey on children they know and have already developed trust with. So reinforce with your girl that the rules about inappropriate touching and other kinds of abuse apply to everyone.
Keep in mind that these conversations aren’t a one-and-done type of thing. By discussing the issues of physical and sexual abuse early and often in an age-appropriate way, your girl will be more likely to feel comfortable telling you if someone has hurt her. It may never be an easy conversation to have, but the more times you bring it up, the easier it will get.
Sexual violence and abuse can have a ripple effect. Even just hearing that a loved one has gone through something so horrible can cause nightmares, regressive behaviors like bedwetting, or signs of anxiety like recurring headaches and stomachaches. If your girl is having a tough time, there’s no need to take this on alone. Reach out to your school counselor or a medical professional for resources and additional help.